Postcolonialism's contemporary relevance

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford

Postcolonial theory is a politico-intellectual idea concerned with the impacts of colonialism on both colonising and colonised peoples in the past, and the reproduction of coloniality in the present. Gaining momentum in the mid-20th century as European colonies, such as India and Malaysia, achieved independence, postcolonial perspectives are widely employed today to interrogate uneven power legacies across diverse and intersecting categories. For example, they examine how race, gender, sexuality and class have been interwoven across colonial spaces throughout time. Here I will explore how postcolonial theory valuably understands the world not as ex-colonial, but continually implicated in it through neo-colonial remakings and practices. Ultimately, the world consists of multiple diverse colonialisms. Furthermore, I will employ a feminist lens to explore how postcolonial feminism seeks to provide a voice for Third World feminism.


One of the major contributions of postcolonial theory to geographical scholarship is the argument that we do not live in a world that is ‘beyond’ colonialism, but a world where colonialism has been refashioned into multiple forms. The temporality of postcolonialism argues colonialism does not end with the achievement of independence of a former colony, but that ‘forms of neo-colonial domination persist long after the flags of the Western colonial powers were lowered in their respective colonial territories’. This is witnessed through the continued economic, political, intellectual, and cultural ties that continue to sustain and structure global inequalities.


Therefore, it is necessary to analyse critically the neoliberal agendas of the Global North states and institutions in maintaining an economic hegemony over the Global South. This has been achieved by the introduction of economic reforms and Structural Adjustment Programmes in the 1980s by the IMF and World Bank, which has encouraged an economic dependence on aid and loans. I argue that this dependence is embedded in discourses of white liberal humanitarianism, or the ‘white saviour’ complex. Postcolonial theory recognises the ongoing insidious neo-colonial projects of such states and institutions, providing a framework to understand and challenge such uneven power relations.


Another way postcolonial theory contributes to geographical scholarship is by using feminist frameworks to provide a voice for women across Third World countries. Through attending to the experiences of women outside of the Global North and coloniser countries, postcolonial feminism critiques the universalising tendencies of Western feminism to apply its claims to women around the world. It also recognises the ways racism and the long-lasting political, economic, and cultural effects of colonialism affect non-white, non-Western women. Postcolonial and feminist theorists state that women are oppressed by both the patriarchy and colonial power, thus women are ‘double’ colonised in a twofold way by imperialism and male dominance. This intersectional approach was the basis for critical race scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory, where she recognised the oppressing intersection of race and gender on Black women in America who were unable to legally sue for workplace discrimination on the grounds of both race and gender.


Further reading:

  1. Crenshaw, K., 1989. Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. u. Chi. Legal f., p.139.

  2. Narayan, U., Harding, S. and Harding, S.G. eds., 2000. Decentering the center: Philosophy for a multicultural, postcolonial, and feminist world. Indiana University Press.

  3. Chambers, C. and Watkins, S., 2012. Postcolonial feminism?.

  4. Mwaura, N., 2005. Kenya today: Breaking the yoke of colonialism in Africa. Algora Publishing.